- Why Should We Read and Study Gibbs?
- Literature & Analysis
- “A Kind of Wakefulness”
- “Who Asked Me to Be a Reader of Entrails?”
- Analysis of “A Kind of Wakefulness” and “Who Asked Me to Be a Reader of Entrails?”
- “Conservation Procedures”
- Analysis of “Conservation Procedures”
- “The Death of My Father”
- Questions and Considerations for Reflection
- Strategies for Teachers
- Further Reading
Born in Saint John in 1930, Robert Gibbs was a younger contemporary of the Fiddlehead group of poets (the Bliss Carman Society) who assembled in Fredericton under the mentorship of A.G. Bailey. A student at UNB in 1947, he started contributing to The Fiddlehead in 1950 and later joined the magazine’s editorial board when he became a professor of English at UNB in 1963. Gibbs is unusual in being skilled in two literary forms, poetry and prose. A very accomplished and disciplined modernist poet, the genre for which he is primarily known, he also wrote novels and light-hearted short stories that delighted readers with their warmth and humour. His “Hutchie and Pompman” stories follow the exploits of two adolescent orphans as they make their way through New Brunswick’s strange world of religion and personalities. Gibbs’ equal facility with poetry and prose enabled him to offer valuable advice to the many students and apprentice writers who came to him for help. He was a generous and selfless teacher whose foremost interest was the achievement of others, a fact that accounts for him being relatively unknown to readers.
For a much more detailed biography of Gibbs, see his New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.
- To read Gibbs is to be introduced to a writer who Alden Nowlan said was mysteriously neglected by the Canadian public. Many writers with national reputations are not nearly as good, Nowlan claimed, and in that observation Nowlan was absolutely correct. It is not often that we encounter a national-class writer whose work we do not know, but that will be the case for many New Brunswick and Canadian readers when they pick up Gibbs.
- We also read Gibbs for his great facility with language. He is a modernist in the fashion of A.G. Bailey and Wallace Stevens, displaying equal wit and dexterity with thoughts and words. What he learned from Bailey, he said, was to delight in the idiosyncratic mind, the mind that moves among disparate things and depends on careful readers to connect the dots. A carefully constructed field of words and wordplay, Gibbs’ poetry invites us into its sense making. His work, then, demands focussed reading, but it rewards the effort.
- Like Bailey and Fred Cogswell, Gibbs educated an entire generation of writers who went on to achieve regional and national recognition. To read his work is thus to gain insight into the mind of a great teacher of the craft of writing. Understanding his work enables us to understand the work of his best students (such as Brian Bartlett) more fully.
“A Kind of Wakefulness”
You’ve left no door or I’d knock
you sacked in your silk house
Bug worm whatever you are
so there’s no getting in or I’d come
and wrap myself in your fine suspense
breathing as the earth breathes
once or twice a winter
Maybe it’s a way of getting wings
to spread in a big spring show
slowing down that much
taking winter for what it is
these days when the westerlies
shake teeth loose
and needle eyelids through
as if to stitch them up
Or I’d join a bear in dreams
exchanging my spirit maybe
with some astral anti-bear
who’d amble the night sky wide awake
while my head joined numb ground
under a heaved-up stump
in a fellow heaviness
of green caves under the sun
where in August heat raspberry canes
light their cool spaces
with heavy sweet combed fruit
Dreaming what the earth dreams
breathing to its bass
must be a kind of wakefulness
than this fleeced and muffleheaded
“Who Asked Me to Be a Reader of Entrails?”
He asked me what the signs were of late
spring a hot summer dearth
I said I could not tell though they
were all around I was sure
He asked me where I’d look Was there
an almanac of sorts or did we have our own
Old Indian I said there must be
one of each from what I’d heard
He asked if there were still new moons
fish days fasts on the drugstore
calendar Were the wormcasts heavier
than usual? The sun warped
one side or the other? Did the river
stink more pungently? The eels
slide out of it deliberately? Who
had laid the woodchuck on his side
in such a deep remission? Were the ravens
racketeering in glossier encopements? Why
did the sky blacken again without
intention? I had no answer and told him so
I who scarcely know my right hand from
my left Who asked me to be a reader
of entrails or unraveller of dreams?
He pointed to the earth He pointed to the sky
He called the moon bloody and so it was
He stopped on my threshold and would not
come in took sips of tea outside but refused
meat wasted As for me
what would I do when winter days came on?
I would keep my two ears warm unnip
my nose and muffle my feet I would walk
around my neighbourhood with no falls
Analysis of “A Kind of Wakefulness” and “Who Asked Me to Be a Reader of Entrails?”
From a 1973 collection of poems of the same name, “A Kind of Wakefulness” can be counted among a long list of New Brunswick poems that contemplate our most brutal of seasons: winter. But Gibbs’ poem is remarkable for “burying itself,” quite figuratively, in that contemplation – for seeking, that is, to understand winter from inside the pulse and steady breathing of that season. The poem references and follows what Wallace Stevens in “The Snow Man” called “a mind of winter”:
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun;
For Stevens, the “snow” poem was “an example of the necessity of identifying oneself with reality in order to understand it and enjoy it” (Letters 464). In seeking to understand winter’s pulse, Gibbs imaginatively enters the lair of the cocooned and hibernating, whether bug, worm, or bear. And, eye-level with those sleepers, he ruminates on the slowing down as a prelude to spreading out “in a big spring show” (from caterpillar to butterfly). If that is too flamboyant, he opts for dreaming with bears, conjuring images of “green caves under the sun” and raspberries plumping “in August heat.” The sensuousness is intentional as a means of transport, taking the speaker out of the doldrums of cold to pleasing warmth.
The poem’s final stanza concludes that dreaming and breathing to earth’s cadences “must be a kind of wakefulness,” an adaptation to cold that is “sharper-eyed” than the protesting measures – donning layers and sun glasses – of the shivering masses. The poem, then, follows and expands upon Stevens’ injunction, suggesting “identification” for not only understanding and enjoyment but also reconciling to a force that seems to delight in thwarting protest. Those people who have lived through the tortures of a New Brunswick winter will commiserate and understand the wisdom of Gibbs’ poem.
At the same time, Gibbs is always careful to observe with humility, taking a page from Bailey and Cogswell. “Who Asked Me to Be a Reader of Entrails?” displays that humility while also delighting in the colourful but absurd questions of a frantic inquisitor. The two poems seem made to stand together, for these are the questions we ask in the grips of winter: what are the signs of a merciful end, how high did the honeybees build, what did the almanacs say? Even one who entered the “mind of winter,” however, can be of little help, for he “scarcely” knows right hand from left when it comes to weather. (Meteorologists should be so self-effacing.) Instead, even the wise (like the shaman and the bear) are victim to winter, striving to keep ears and nose warm, walking carefully so as to avoid falls. Once again, winter is given dominion, the power to enslave and humiliate, and the power to moot protest and hope. Such is the condition of our existence.
If this poem’s speaker seems impatient with the questioning it is because of his understanding of its futility. Better, he implies, to follow the animals in seeking “a kind of wakefulness.”
A fire spirit humps and troubles
here and there
running from the centre outward
then breaks in foaming spit
like a red pulse breached
The jelly pots aboil
Highbush cranberry juice
dripped and squeezed from a cotton bag
lights round the fulmination
as if the sun were in it
a January one that will so shine
through flattened clusters ruby-red
left for it and winter birds
Pith scums and cruds yellow grey
and the skimming spoon clears it
like coating from a tongue
whose buds for tasting bitterness
sugar down and drown
in clarified syrup
But what a thickening power
must be in it all
waiting out this troubling heat
to pull the cells round
into rosettes and tetrahedrons
of crystal jelly
Cranberry flesh conserved
to stand in bottles on a window sill
turning all its summer out
in sweet blood light
Analysis of “Conservation Procedures”
“Conservation Procedures” is a poem about making preserves, a New Brunswick tradition. The process of cranberry-preservation (jelly-making) is the subject of this poem. Such prosaic stuff, except in the hands of a skilled and attentive poet the ordinary is turned into the extraordinary. The boiling cranberries invoke an animating “fire spirit” that “humps and troubles / here and there” – yes! we say, that’s exactly how thickened cranberries boil on the stove – while the pink foam (“spit” the poet likens it to) drifts to the edge of the pot to be cleared by “the skimming spoon.” So well do New Brunswickers know that chemistry.
While Gibbs takes great care to describe the stages of the procedure, the ritual and symbolism of the process are equally important, for, once shelved, the “cranberry flesh conserved” radiates a “sweet blood light” that is reminiscent of summer. The science to which Gibbs alludes in observing the mysteries of cell crystallization should remind us of Charles G.D. Roberts’ “The Mowing,” specifically the lines
And all noon long the sun, with chemic ray,
Seals up each cordial essence in its cell,
That in the dusky stalls, some winter’s day,
The spirit of June, here prisoned by his spell,
May cheer the herds with pasture memories.
Gibbs is not reducing us to grazing animals, though we are equally in thrall to January’s dictates, but rather identifying that which animates our culture of preserving. As A.G. Bailey noted in naming his literary magazine “The Fiddlehead,” the First Nations of this province revered the small fern because it was “symbolic of the sun.” As northerners we are sun worshippers, and thus in “conserving” we are, in a way, capturing small bits of summer in jars. The achievement of Gibbs’ poem is to communicate that, while enabling us to taste the tartness of the cranberries. Whoever doesn’t taste this poem on the tongue is not reading attentively.
Further proof of Gibbs’ mastery of the startling, evocative image can be found in the next poem, “The Death of My Father.” We are unlikely to have ever encountered or imagined a recently deceased father being compared with the “bluebodied turkey in the fridge downstairs,” for that comparison is neither flattering nor sensitive to how we are taught to think of the moment of such revelation, but it is entirely accurate, honest, and arresting. When we discover an image of such bold frankness we know immediately that we are in the presence of a poet working at the height of his powers. That Gibbs is relatively unknown is clearly an injustice, as Nowlan agreed.
“The Death of My Father”
My father died Christmas Eve in
the middle of the night and
the green breath of the big tree
in our front room mixed with
the dark smell of death upstairs.
My mother called us in and said
“I think he’s gone, your father’s gone,” and
seeing the slack black gape
of his mouth, I thought of the cold
bluebodied turkey in the fridge downstairs.
A praiseworthy man, on Sundays out to meeting
with praise of God in his eyes and not
a pigeon missed with breadcrumbs nor
a dickybird in the gutter and not
a tomcat passed with his ruff
unruffled or his rough purr unpurred.
A man simple enough, in love with sunsets
and butter-and-eggs by the railway tracks
where we took our Sunday walks around
the waterfronts and afterwards reformed
baptist hymns which his thick fingers pressed
from the thick strings of his cello.
I see you dad, on your high stool in
your shop, eyeglass wrenched into play and
fine curly gold turning up and off from
your keen engraver as you cut ‘Love for
always and always’ on the inside circus
of a secondhand wedding ring.
And how we hoarded the dust from
every sweeping in a tall black can and
shipped it away to the refiner to have
your gold and silver letters, all
your days’ cuttings from coffin plates
and baby spoons, cradled out
in his white secret fire and
sent back, sent back.
► Gibbs’ poetry provides the opportunity to chart a line of modernist succession in New Brunswick. Gibbs was taught by A.G. Bailey, and in turn taught Brian Bartlett. For students of Canadian and New Brunswick modernism, this line of succession will provide fruitful study.
► Reading Gibbs’ “Conservation Procedures” will remind students of Canadian poetry of Louis Dudek’s “The Pomegranate.” Read together, both poems provide the opportunity to examine how poets turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. This consideration will likely lead to wondering if that turn is indeed what art does: provide us with new ways of seeing what we see every day, and “making strange” the familiar. When Ezra Pound defined modernism as “mak[ing] it new,” this is exactly what he intended.
► Gibbs’ interest in exploring the intersections of human and natural harmonies will be familiar to readers of New Brunswick literature. As noted above, readers will also notice the similarity of Gibb’s “A Kind of Wakefulness” to Charles G.D. Roberts’ sonnets, notably “The Mowing” and “In an Old Barn” (see Confederation Poets). Cogswell’s “New Brunswick” offers similar opinion about nature’s imprint on humans. It is worth considering why this examination is recurring in New Brunswick literature. Is it because of the influence of the Confederation Poets, the centrality of A.G. Bailey’s notion of interdependent ecologies, or the dominance of the environment in the lives of a still largely rural and resource-labouring population? Fast forwarding to the work of M. Travis Lane, Tammy Armstrong, and Brian Bartlett provides an answer to this question – and further insight into a common human/nature dialectic in New Brunswick. Later poets and theorists will employ strategies of “eco-poetics” to explore this dialectic (see John Thompson, for example).
Strategy 1: Procedures (“Conservation Procedures”)
Have students think of a simple procedure they have performed several times, but perhaps have never thought about or observed in a mindful way. (Alternatively, assign a single procedure that all students would have the means to perform.) Ask them to carry out the procedure at some point over the next week, conscious that they will be asked to write about the experience. Whether students choose to write in poetry, prose, or some other genre, challenge them to emulate some of what Gibbs has achieved in this poem. For example, students might be encouraged to use precise and unconventional language, and to note what is essential to the procedure, what is meaningful about the procedure, and what is beautiful or repellant within the procedure. How did this exercise of close attention change their experience of the procedure? In what ways would their experience have been different if they were writing a how-to technical guide for performing the procedure?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Writing and Representing: Make critical choices of form, style, and content to address increasingly complex demands of different purposes and audiences
Strategy 2: I See You Dad (“The Death of My Father”)
This poem could be read alongside Elizabeth Brewster’s “Inheritance.” Depending on the temperament of your class, this activity could be organized as a discussion, or as a private reflection or journaling exercise. Ask students if they feel they have ever “seen” their parental figures with the degree of insight that these poets have. Can they, for example, hold and examine in their minds one habit or gesture that sums up the character of a parent in all his/her beauty and frailty? If this is difficult or impossible to do, then why? What type of maturity or perspective is necessary for a person to see his/her parents as independent human beings? Are there some types of parenting styles that nurture, or obscure, such insight?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Make informed personal responses to increasingly challenging print and media texts and reflect on their responses
Bartlett, Brian, ed. The Essential Robert Gibbs. Erin, ON: The Porcupine’s Quill, 2012.
Dorscht, Susan Rudy. “A Space to Play In; Or, Telling the (W)hole Story: The Recent Poetry of Robert Gibbs.” Canadian Literature 116 (1988): 87-93.
Dudek, Louis. “The Pomegranate.” Collected Poetry. Montreal: Delta, 1971. 47.
Gibbs, Robert. I’ve Always Felt Sorry for Decimals. Ottawa, ON: Oberon, 1978.
---. The Tongue Still Dances: Poems New and Selected. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1985.
---. “Three Decades and a Bit Under the Elms: A Fragmentary Memoir.” Essays on Canadian Writing 31 (1985): 231-39.
Lane, M. Travis. “The ‘Night’ Voices of Robert Gibbs.” Fiddlehead 220 (2004): 149-51.
---. “Roads Round About Here: The Poetry of Robert Gibbs.” The Humanities Association Bulletin 23.4 (1972): 47-54.
Stevens, Wallace. “The Snow Man.” The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Knopf, 1954.
---. Letters of Wallace Stevens. Ed. Holly Stevens. New York: Knopf, 1966.
For much more detailed primary and secondary source bibliographies of Gibbs, see his New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.
We gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Robert Gibbs for allowing us to use the poems above for this curriculum. Further use or distribution of these poems, however, is a violation of Canadian copyright law and is strictly prohibited. Under no circumstance may literary material used in the curriculum be reproduced, distributed, or stored without the permission of the copyright holder.
The four poems above appear in The Essential Robert Gibbs. Ed. Brian Bartlett. Erin, ON: The Porcupine’s Quill, 2012.
All contents except for poetry and fiction copyright © Tony Tremblay, James W. Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell.